24 September 2009

[IP] You're In The Band - But Who Owns The Act?

2212.Music makes the world go 'round.

That's the way I think of it anyway.

But musical acts are, in essence, not just a group of guys or gals or guys-n-gals getting together to play, get famous, and collect scads of fans – they're more than that. They're businesses, too – some very successful, the vast majority, not so.

Bear in mind that, through this subsequent narrative, I am not a lawyer of any kind, but simply am fascinated by these changes and think they have lessons to teach anybody who creates and collaborates.

I've found that, one of my side interests being intellectual property, the story of who owns the act – the band name, the right to call themselves by the distinctive brand – is usually quite interesting and very instructive. For instance, the soft-rock titans of the 70s and 80s, the Little River Band, are playing a casino up in Washington very soon. When you go to see them, though, given the band has made numerous personnel changes, are you seeing LRB, LRB 2.0, 3.0, or whatever?

Here are three stories I find interesting.

1. The Electric Light Orchestra. ELO is a band that, I hope, needs little introduction. Setting the standard for art-rock-for-the-masses during the 1970s and 80s, the album Out Of The Blue is still one of the signature albums of the late 20th Century, and Jeff Lynne, one of the founders of the band, has gone on to become a legend in his own right – as one of the Travelling Wilburys, producing for George Harrison and Tom Petty.

The history of ELO goes back to the late 60s. Lynne was a comer in the Birmingham UK music scene, fronting a popular local band called The Idle Race, which was on the verge of going national. In 1970 Jeff Lynne became a member of The Move, one of the most famous and notable British bands of the time, and he joined just in time to collaborate with the Move's frontman, Roy Wood, on a project that employed classical instruments to play rock and roll riffs – a project that became the Electric Light Orchestra, whose original members were Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, and Bev Bevan (the drummer, who would remain with ELO throughout its glory years and into the 80s)

Roy Wood, however, left the group after the release of its first album (The Electric Light Orchestra, released in the USA as No Answer, an interesting story per se but for another time), leaving the continued survival of the act to Lynne and Bevan and whomever else they felt they could employ. The rest, as they say, is history, which ELO made up until the release of the album Balance of Power in 1986, when the band faded into retirement.

Some people just can't let a good act go, however. From the late 1980s through the early 1990s (approximately), Bevan who, as half of the original founding membership of the band had half-ownership in the ELO name, wanted to make another ELO album or reform the band in some way. Lynne, having tired of ELO, was not in the mood, but nor was he in the mood to allow Bevan and whatever band he gathered to record and tour as ELO. After obligatory legal negotiations, a solution was reached, and it was called Electric Light Orchestra Part II, Later simply ELO Part II. This band began with only Bevan and Louis Clark (the original string arragner for ELO) but eventually added old  ELO hands such as Mik Kaminski and the late Kelly Groucutt (who had a history of his own legal outs with the original ELO band). This arrangement survived until 2000, when Bevan disbanded ELO Part II, the remaining players reorganzing into a band called The Orkestra, which still tours and plays today.

Meanwhile, back on Lynne Street, in the year 2000 Bevan also resolved the question of ELO ownership by accepting a payment for his rights to the name ELO. Thus unencumbered, Jeff Lynne released the album Zoom in 2001 as an Electric Light Orchestra album.

2. Alice Cooper. While I am an admirer of the genius and daring that is Vincent Furnier I've never been a fan of metal. I am a big fan of brilliant, though, and his work as Alice Cooper deserves respect if only because of his passion for the form and his stunning genius in redefining metal music in terms of show and in terms of how it can wow its audience.

I was rather surprised to find out that the Alice Cooper name started out as the name of his band, however, not as the nom de guerre of the performer. It kind of evolved that way, apparently, based on his stage persona and show, people assumed that he actually went by the name Alice Cooper. Eventually he started to bill himself as Alice.

The problem here became that even though he wanted to bill himself as such, the name started out as the name of the band itself – therefore, the members who were in the band at the time had, as such, a share in the ownership of the success of the brand.

This was simply solved by the payment of royalties by the individual performer to all those who have rights to the name. While the amount is not a matter of record, Wikipedia's article on Cooper claims that it's enough for each lucky winner to live comfortably.

3. The Little River Band. The oringial Little River Band was based in Melbourne, Australia, and started out as a band calling itself "Mississippi". The legend has it, as told by one of the founding members or LRB, Beeb Birtles:

In the beginning, we were known as Mississippi, and already had a following from the three years we played all over Australia. Some of our avid fans objected to us being an Australian band with an American name so we decided to find a new name for ourselves. We tossed around a few different options but it wasn't until Glenn Shorrock and I, sitting in the back seat of a car while being driven to one of our first gigs in Geelong, Victoria that we passed the Little River signpost. Glenn turned to me and said, "Little River--that would make a good song title," but within a split second he said, "hey, what about  Little River Band?". When we mentioned it to the rest of the guys, they all agreed that it would be a perfect name for us.

The original lineup of LRB included musician/songwriters Graeham Goble, Beeb Birtles, and vocalist/songwriter Glenn Shorrock, three men whom, judging by the songs that got famous through the release of their breakthrough album Diamantina Cocktail, seemed to be the creative core of the group.

It wasn't long until personnel changes began to affect the complexion of the band. By the time Diamantina Cocktail had been released, the bass and lead guitar positions had each changed at least once. By the time of the release of Time Exposure in 1980, the last of the golden-age LRB albums, the bass player had been replaced again with American Wayne Nelson (who remains with the band until this day). During that time, Glenn Shorrock had left the band due to creative differences, Beeb Birtles left in 1983, Graeham Goble in 1992, Shorrock returned in 1987 only to leave again in 1996. The reasons were numerous – creative differences, touring schedules, the usual stuff you year about in the music press. Each original member left behind his rights to use the name through one legal avenue or another and a variety of circumstances (a few of which I'm not qualified to understand) when he left the band organization.

Eventually it fell out that guitarist Stephen Housden, who joined the band in 1981, was the sole survivor after original drummer Derek Pelliici left for good in 1998, leaving the rights to the band name with him, and the obligation of continuing the act with the talent he deemed acceptable. In 1999, after a three-year absence, bassist Wayne Nelson returned.

Moving up to the year 2001, Birtles, Shorrock, and Goble were seated together at a table at an Australian musical award program and they realized that, musically, they had a great deal in common and that they had to do and say, and set about forming an evolution of the original band with many of the founding members, which at first they'd hoped to call The Original Little River Band. This soon ran into trouble, as the various legal agreements – however they were arrived at and whomever approved or were involved – came home to roost. The band's brand and trademarks, owned by Stephen Housden, were closed to them; judging by my reading, they were apparently enjoined from mentioning, except in a very limited way, that they were founders of the LRB; the original release of 2005's Full Circle by the band (calling themselves simpley Birtles Shorrock Goble), notably had question marks in the marquee where the LRB's name would appear in the sentence ORIGINAL VOICES OF LITTLE RIVER BAND (see the illustration right, linked to from Wikipedia).

The official version of the Little River Band still tours, and is still fronted by Wayne Nelson who, presumably, holds ownership rights to the name (Wikipedia's page on LRB notes that Housden has left but has not updated any other information). Founder Graeham Goble released a song in 2006, "Someone's Taken Our History", which suggests how one of the founders feel about it:


From the POV of the fan, there's always the question; who is it you're watching? When ELO's Zoom came out in 2001, it was, legally-speaking, an ELO album, and it was a very good album (which I think is an incredibly underrated album) – but as thing, some critics have noted that it's more of a Jeff Lynne solo album in which a great many of his friends and collaborators paid visits to (Richard Tandy and Mik Kaminski, from the original ELO, made an appearance each, but the band that toured only had Lynne as the remaining original member). Similarly, Little River Band have created more albums since the departure of the founding members, but can a fan say that it's really LRB without BSG?

That sort of thing is really something for the fan to decide for themselves. I adore Jeff Lynne, and he can call himself anything he wants as long as he creates music. On the other hand, I'd probably be more inclined to see a BSG show than I would a modern LRB show.

It's a personal decision that can be, on the fan's level, more important than any legal agreement.

Can anyone, outside of brand name considerations, actually own an act?

I know I didn't answer the question – but then, I don't know if anyone really can.

The bottom-line lesson – it's a crap shoot, but get it in writing, if you can.

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